The Year Was 1938 – May 20th

Cecilia Parker in 1937
  • Just finishing ‘Love Finds Andy Hardy,’ a  long term contract at MGM is awarded to Cecilia Parker for her work in the family series. She began the role of Mickey Rooney older sister in 1937. [She has one more ahead for 1938, then three more Hardy features and one short for 1939].
  • A meeting was held at the home of Sam Goldwyn to discuss the deal they will receive for releasing via United Artists for the 1938-39 season (the distributor will sell only on percentage, not flat). Also present were David O Selznick, Dr A H Gianninni, Walter Wanger, Edward Small, Hal Roach.
  • Shake up at Universal, with VP in charge of production, Charles R Rogers, on the way out, Cliff Work will take his place under President Nat Blumberg and VP Matthew Fox. [Active since the silent days, Rogers had been head of production at RKO in 1931, switching to Universal in 1935. He had some notable successes with them – ‘My Man Godfrey’ for instance, and for signing the teen singing sensation Deanna Durbin. He would wind up at Paramount in 1939, and produce The Star Maker with Bing Crosby, a fictionalized version of the life of Gus Edwards].
  • At WB, ‘For Lovers Only’ begins filming, with Dick Powell in the lead and with Olivia DeHavilland playing opposite him. [The romantic comedy is released under the title – ‘Hard to Get’].
  • Margaret Sullivan is discussed as the lead for Hal Roach’s new romantic comedy ‘There Goes My Heart.’ The part had been turned down by Irene Dunne. [Sullivan must have turned it down too, as Virginia Bruce is credited in the part].
  • Ed Sullivan points out that Gene Reynolds is playing a lot of roles when the lead character needs to be shown as a child – for James Stewart in ‘Of Human Hearts’; for Tyrone Power in ‘In Old Chicago’; for Ricardo Cortez in ‘The Californian’; and for John Beal in ‘Madame X.’ [Gene Reynolds has four films for 1939. He had a long career in entertainment, and later was a TV producer for MASH and Lou Grant].
  • Jackie Coogan is in San Francisco working on a personal stage appearance, making jokes about his impoverished situation. And hoping to earn enough until August when the suit with his parents will be tried. Bob Hope has written his routine, between takes on his current film ‘Give Me a Sailor.’ Hope and Coogan will have a vaudeville tour together in the East beginning in June. (See May 13th)

ON THE MOVE

  • Pat O’Brien will be taking off for a three week vacation, and will start ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’ upon his return. [Per Ed Sullivan he plans to take in the War Admiral – Seabiscuit match race. The race scheduled for May at Belmont did not come off with Seabiscuit. The race finally took place on November 1st].
  • Joel McCrea heads off to Montana for a fishing trip, accompanied by his stand in, Carl Andre. His station wagon is fully equipped for the expedition. Upon their return they will report to Universal along with other Goldwyn contracted people – Andrea Leeds and director Archie Mayo. Some think it strange that so many from the Goldwyn stable would be going to a rival studio. Shooting to begin June 4.
  • The 20th Century Fox film ‘Five of a Kind’ with the Dionne quintuplets will see its company leave for Canada tonight, but without Joan Davis. She is now home from the hospital after her back injury, sustained will rehearsing with Buddy Ebsen. She plans to join them next week. [Davis must not have made it, for she is not listed in the credits]. (See May 9th).

OPENED IN THEATERS THAT DAY

  • Swiss Miss with Laurel & Hardy (directed by John Blystone) from MGM.
  • Mystery House with Humphrey Bogart from WB.

The Mighty B’s – Charlie Chan – Changing of the Guard Pt 2 #1939TheMiracleYear

The Mighty Bs -Charlie Chan - the Changing of the Guard Pt 2

The Oakland Tribune [12/11/38] put it succinctly in their headline for their story about the replacement for Warner Oland:

Missouri Man Follows Swede in Chan Role

The article ran two months after the decision that Sidney Toler would be the new Charlie Chan. Having pointed out the disparity of their origins, their story went on to compare the two actors and introduce to their readers (or recall to their memory) just who the new Chan was.

The successful candidate – Sidney Toler – had many similarities to Oland. Both men were tall [6 foot] and heavyset. Both came from the stage, Oland’s first stage appearance in the early 1900s was in a Sarah Bernhardt production. He put a total of fourteen years in on the boards, and along with his wife translated the works of August Strindberg. Toler, being older by five years, started in the theater right out of college in 1892 (the same year a thirteen year old Oland emigrated from Sweden with his family), and wrote many plays as well.

Oland, however, was first off the mark when it came to film roles – he appeared with Theda Bara in Jewels of Madonna in 1909 for William Fox. Toler did not appear before the camera until 20 years later – in Madame X, (under the direction of fellow actor Lionel Barrymore).

And both Toler and Oland had played villains, and both had played Orientals.

When Oland died, he left behind some pretty big shoes. No one else in film history to that date had appeared in such a long lived series of feature films portraying the same character. His fans were legion. And the exhibitors were keen for a Chan to light up their screens and box office coffers.

And it had seemed it would come to pass.

Fox had announced a starting date (first week in August 1938) for the next production – Charlie Chan in Honolulu, but they weren’t getting any responses from Oland to their summons for his sooner return. They did not know that he was on his death bed. The exhibitors mourned at the news of his passing, and the week after rejoiced to hear that a search was underway for a new Chan, and already rumors were circulating that a contract player on the Fox lot, J Edward Bromberg, held the inside track.

However, screen tests for the part were still ongoing in October with Charles Coburn and Sidney Toler the most recent candidates. The field topped out at 35 before the final decision was made (Oland had been the chosen one from a field of 19). Fox must have been getting nervous about going forward, for they hedged their bets by canvassing the exhibitors as to their continued support for the series, arguing that they did have the Mr Moto series to fall back on. Their poll must have been reassuring.

So far 1938 was a busy year for Toler. He split himself between two studios and five projects in supporting roles.  Though his main studio had been principally Paramount, he appeared in two of Fox’s B unit films – ‘The Wild Night’ and ‘Up the River,’ both comedies about criminals. After Toler was tapped for the Chan part on October 18, the film columnists posited afterwards that Toler had angled to become Chan.  Toler confirmed it in a column he wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer in August 1939 (before his third Chan film was released). He confessed that he won the part on the strength of his “performance as a con man in Up the River.” And then columnist Robbin Coons got more specific – in essence Toler played the part of the con man as if he were Chan (just without the accent) by making the case to the director beforehand that his character should be “quiet, subtle and restrained.”And it was reported that the rushes from Up the River and Toler’s character in particular wowed Sol Wurtzel. Such was his contribution and because of how well the film came together that Darryl Zanuck (Wurtzel’s boss) bumped Up the River to an ‘A’ picture status. Toler was rewarded with a screen test for the Chan part and walked away with the role.

The advance reviews for ‘Charlie Chan in Honolulu’ confirmed their choice.

The Variety review 12/21/38

“Adventures of Charlie Chan get off to a fresh start with Sidney Toler handling the title role in most capable fashion. His Chan has poise and lightness, and is less theatric than previously. Followers of the series should quickly accept him as Chan, and if comparisons with the late Warner Oland’s conception are made they will generally be in his favor.”

The Film Bulletin review (an Exhibitor publication) 12/31/38

“a lighter, more affable and less formal Charlie Chan. .. reviewer found himself more concerned with the story than comparisons between Oland and Toler.”

And gave the following promo tip: “Call him the greatest character in mystery fiction – a character that will never die!”

And soon like Oland, Toler was receiving adulatory fan mail – by the bucket loads – addressed merely to his character’s name – Charlie Chan. It led Toler to muse about his getting the role in the first place. In that article from the Philadelphia Inquirer he remarked that before Chan he was a ‘triple threat actor’ – comedian, villain or any other role. (He must have been feeling what George Reeves felt later after playing the Superman role on TV, and was no longer offered other parts). For Toler ends his comments, in a comic fashion, but with the sting of truth, relating a dream “in which he was playing Shylock in Merchant of Venice, when someone in the audience jumped to his feet and yelled – ‘You can’t fool me – That’s Charlie Chan.’”

Stayed tuned for a rundown on the four Chan films released in 1939 starring Sidney Toler.